American Gods just wrapped up its first season. Spoiler-filled thoughts on the finale, and season one as a whole, coming up just as soon as you valet park my stolen ice cream truck…
Early in “Come to Jesus,” Mr. Nancy — the spider god-turned-tailor played with such passion and joy by Orlando Jones — frustrates Mr. Wednesday by insisting on spinning a tale before he gets back to the task at hand.
“Ah, Jesus, Nancy!” Wednesday complains, to which Nancy replies, “Let me tell a goddamn story!” He tells it and, like virtually all of the folklore tales that Bryan Fuller, Michael Green, and company have scattered across this season, it’s a damned gods delight, following Bilquis across the centuries, from her peak of worship as the Queen of Sheba, to less powerful but still fun decadence in a Tehran disco, to the hard times she fell upon in America until Technical Boy and the new gods recruited her.
It’s a promising start to the finale, but after that, we’re back to this extremely slow-burning, intentionally confusing war between the old gods and the new, and whatever game Wednesday — finally revealed in the climax to be Odin, the leader of the Norse gods (best known in modern pop culture as the father of Thor) — is playing with Shadow and Laura Moon. And as the hour went along, I couldn’t help empathizing with Mr. Nancy, who understands the value of a simple story well-told.
Because American Gods debuted in the midst of this crazy April/May stretch of Peak TV, I haven’t been able to write about it since my initial review, but I wish I’d had time to pop back in to comment either “Git Gone” or “A Prayer For Mad Sweeney.” (Links are to Donna Dickens’ American Gods Book Club pieces.) Those episodes had three elements in common: 1) Wall-to-wall Emily Browning, 2) Largely standalone stories with very little to do with Wednesday vs. Mr. World, and 3) They were by far the two best hours of the season.
This is why I keep writing these periodic rants about the value of the episode as a storytelling unit. Those two episodes told clear and compelling stories with two well-defined main characters (both played with all their flaws and vulnerabilities exposed by Browning); they were the folklore scenes sprinkled throughout the other installments writ large, and they worked beautifully. On the whole, though, those other six hours were lively, full of great performances, and gorgeous to look at, but they were also shapeless and slow and, because of the desire of the showrunners (and Neil Gaiman before them) to obfuscate Wednesday’s identity and plan, deliberately hard to follow. And even as “a novel for television” meant to be binged, it’s not wholly satisfying, because there’s still so much story to go(*).
(*) Might the entire series just be an adaptation of the one book? Maybe, or maybe at some point Gaiman will publish the sequel and give Fuller and Green more story to work with. I’m not opposed to letting the source material play out over an extended period, but there’s also a reason that other recent shows like The Leftovers, The Handmaid’s Tale, and, to a lesser extent, Game of Thrones have taken the approach of exhausting a single book within a season. It can be scary to move beyond the book (if there aren’t more books to come), but you also run the risk of elongating certain ideas past the point of interest.
Then again, maybe the parts of the season that were telling the main story rather than pausing to tell individual ones would have been more exciting if Shadow were a more interesting character, and/or if Ricky Whittle could find a way to make him interesting through his performance. The show treats him as an audience proxy, there to be alternately skeptical of and awestruck by all this talk of gods and magic, but he still has to feel like a person on some level, and instead he’s just a guy who wears suits well and either squints or stands there slack-jawed. The climax of “Come to Jesus” where Odin brought the thunder down on Mr. World and Media’s other traveling companions, while Shadow just stood there and gawked, was their relationship, and the dynamic between the show’s two most prominent characters, in a nutshell.
I’m in this one for a long time just based on that supporting cast — each of whom, up through Kristen Chenoweth as an uptight Easter and Jeremy Davies as a very empathetic Jesus Christ in this last hour, were wonderful — and the visual stylings of David Slade and friends. But either the god war needs to get in gear already, or the show has to be more willing to vary its storytelling style and spend whole hours with Nancy, or Media, or Czernobog, or whomever, so that we can come to understand them as well as we do Laura, and so the show won’t just feel like a sludge of ideas presented in an eye-popping manner.
Just make like Mr. Nancy: tell me a story, and tell it as well as you possibly can. Moving the chess pieces around the board should always be secondary to that.
What did everybody else think, of both “Come to Jesus” and this first season?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org